In sports, the line separating fair and foul can be as wide as the Houston Asterisks’ cheating scandal or as thin as the period at the end of this sentence.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the wide side of injustice — how thousands of college athletes must sit out the season after they transfer due to antiquated eligibility rules, yet coaches can abandon schools with the ease of a man combing his hair.
Now comes the svelte side of the fairness issue, which can be seen everywhere around Columbus these days as the Ohio State men’s basketball team (injuries and health issues) and the Black and Blue Jackets (injuries) have been bit by, shall we say, mali rumpiter, the invasive species known as "Bad Breaks."
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes and CBJ, tough breaks do not earn teams a free pass into the Unfairness Club. Fan sympathy has a short shelf life, as explanations disintegrate into excuses.
Athletes and coaches are expected to perform at peak levels even when the odds are against them or even when lack of talent precludes them from being up to the task. Manager Casey Stengel once described one of his overmatched New York Mets infielders thusly: "What’s the sense of asking a man to execute if he can’t execute?"
The Blue Jackets somehow have fashioned origami out of medical tape, so set them aside for now and focus on the basketball Buckeyes, who like the Jackets have been hit hard by the injury bug but have struggled to recover.
Four key Ohio State players — Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Kyle Young and Duane Washington Jr. — have missed at least one game, while freshman guard D.J. Carton is out indefinitely while tending to mental health issues, Musa Jallow has missed the entire season and Justin Ahrens was limited early with a bad back.
"It’s been unlike any year I’ve ever experienced when it comes to (injuries)," coach Chris Holtmann said. "We’re in survival mode right now."
But Holtmann isn’t pouting.
"People all over the country have injuries," he said. "At the end of the day, what people are going to look at with us is, ‘Did you win or did you lose? And did you perform or not? Did you make the NCAA Tournament or not?’ That will be the postscript."
Exactly. Injuries are downers, but it is a reach to call them unfair. Similarly, it is a stretch to label it unfair that sophomore guards Muhammad and Washington should be expected to perform like seniors.
Too often in sports, "unfair" is equated with "unfortunate." No doubt Muhammad and Washington face the challenging task of channeling Keyshawn Woods, who late last season took his game up about 325 degrees after imitating a ghost for most of 2018-19. Woods was especially effective in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, when he willed his game into higher gear to delay facing the end of his career.
"In particular our sophomore guards have to grow up really quickly," Holtmann said. "By that I mean a run of consistency that we saw with Keyshawn last year."
If Ohio State is to make noise in either tournament this season, Washington and Muhammad — throw junior point guard C.J. Walker in there, as well — must improve in a hurry.
Too often Ohio State has lacked toughness and consistent effort on offense and defense; thus a record (16-8 and 6-7 in the Big Ten) that remains a head-scratcher despite four wins in the past five games entering today’s game against Purdue at Value City Arena.
The Buckeyes have not been good enough. Fairness has nothing to do with it.